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EU in crisis: Purge of EU officials finds fresh target

THE EUROPEAN Commission looks set to be convulsed by a further wave of revelations on corruption and mismanagement and a ruthless purge of the top ranks of its officials.

The five person inquiry team whose damning report helped topple the commissioners on Monday night, is now preparing for the second phase of the probe. Yesterday some members of the committee accused the Commission of "hindering" its work.

The next phase will target the Commission's 24 directorates-general whose 16,000 staff carry out the day-to-day management of tasks and the execution of policies, including the awarding of financial contracts.

There were suggestions in the German press yesterday of a rearguard attempt by the Commission hierarchy to gag the inquiry by refusing to cooperate with the next round. But with heads of government like Tony Blair demanding "root and branch" reform, any refusal to hand over documents would trigger all-out war with the European Parliament .

The inquiry team is reported to have already received hundreds of boxes of additional information which will form part of the second phase.

The prospect of a purge of senior ranking permanent officials is being relished by handpicked aides and political advisers in the Commissioners' "cabinets" or private offices, who themselves were indirectly the target of much of the criticism in the first-phase report. "There is no point in clearing away the commissioners who accept political responsibility if you leave in place the faceless civil servants who were actually lining their pockets and mismanaging things," said one cabinet member yesterday.

Many middle and junior ranking civil servants are also anxious to see a clear-out. "The wise persons' report is only the tip of the iceberg" said one.

Others said they were appalled by the report and expressed solidarity with Paul Van Buitenen, the sacked Commission whistleblower.

Mr Van Buitenen was given a standing ovation when he showed up at a general assembly of EU staff unions on Wednesday.

Among the targets of the new broom would, according to some sources, be powerful behind-the-scenes figures. "Why should these top civil servants get off scot free?" said one insider.

The presidents of political groups in the European Parliament meet on Monday night in Brussels to decide the remit for the second stage of the inquiry, and parliament officials say there will be agreement that it should proceed. "There is definitely a feeling that we need to go down to the next rung of the ladder".

The inquiry team yesterday hit back at commissioners who suggested that parts of the explosive report were deliberately hyped up. Edith Cresson, the disgraced French commissioner, on Wednesday suggested that the conclusions of the report did not tally with the body of the text and had been sharpened up for political effect on Sunday night after she had seen them.

Pierre Lelong, president of the French court of auditors, and one of the inquiry team, flatly denied Ms Cresson's accusation. "The conclusions were not hardened up. The few changes we made were done with the most scrupulous attention to the truth and without pressure from anyone anywhere," he said.

Walter Van Gerven, a judge who formerly sat on the bench of the European Court of Justice, was another of the five wise persons.

He said: "The European Parliament gave us our mandate and I think they are quite happy with the work we did". He added that the most serious problem shown up by the inquiry was that the Commission had taken on too much work.

"The Commission is not made to directly manage hundreds of contracts with tourism promotion associations, for example.

"Likewise to launch a policy of aid to abandoned children in Romania and then to entrust the job to a private company and let it choose the beneficiaries of public money, that is madness."

Andre Middelhoek, a former member of the EU court of auditors, slated the culture of commissioners failing to look beyond their own noses. "Commissioners should look beyond the hedges of their garden and tear out the weeds from the gardens of their neighbours."

The inquiry team was appointed in January after the Commission agreed to co-operate with a probe in a bid to stave off a vote of censure in parliament.

Donald Macintyre, Review, page 3